How Bullying Bosses Could Bring Liability

October 19, 2010

Did you know that October 17-23 is Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week? While many still associate bullying with overgrown kids taking lunch money on the school playground, the issue of bullying in the workplace is also serious and prevalent. More than a third of American workers have been bullied at work, and nearly half — 49 percent — say they have been affected by bullying, either through experiencing it or witnessing it, according to a recent survey by The Workplace Bullying Institute.

Workplace bullying damages morale, can lead to workers’ compensation claims, hampers productivity and can force high employee turnover. While employers have not often been taken to court for bullying behavior, since it is generally not illegal, that could change soon as several states consider legislation that would hold employers liable for allowing bullying on the job.

The liability could be even greater when employers tolerate, or at least ignore, bullying by bosses. And most bullying is done by bosses, according to the Institute. The survey found nearly three-quarters of those who bully at work are in supervisory positions, and they are most likely to bully the most vulnerable employees, the rank and file workers. When it comes to being bullied, non-supervisory employees account for 55 percent of those who are bullied. Those who are less dependent on an employer or who rank highest in an organization are less likely to be bullied, the survey found. Temporary employees and contractors represent only 5 percent of the bullied, and less than 5 percent of executives, board members and owners are among the victims.

Men are more likely to be bullies — 60 percent of bullies are men, and 40 percent are women. Women are more likely to be targeted for mistreatment, the survey found — 57 percent of victims are female, and 43 percent are male. “The bully boss stereotype is real,” the survey’s authors reported. “Bullies operate with confidence that they will not likely be punished because they enjoy support from higher-ups who can protect them if and when they are exposed.” Workplace bullies do tend to get away with it, the survey found. In 62 percent of cases, employers either escalated the problem or did nothing at all when they learned about the bullying. Less than a third of the time did employers help the bullied employee.

The Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons which takes one or more of the following forms:
verbal abuse; threatening, humiliating or offensive behavior/actions; and work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done. Bullying may resemble such clearly illegal acts as discrimination and harassment; but in some ways is an even greater risk since it can be committed against any employee, not just those in protected classes, such as minorities and the disabled. Employers should begin to take bullying as seriously as the more recognized forms of harassment and discrimination, since at least 17 states have introduced legislation that would provide legal recourse for abusive workplace behavior.

States Taking Action

The bill that Washington State has considered but not yet passed offers one example. According to House Bill 2142 which was introduced in 2008, the state legislature intends, among other things to “provide legal redress for employees who have been harmed, psychologically, physically, or economically, by being deliberately subjected to abusive work environments…” The legislation would also offer legal incentives to employers to prevent and respond to their employees’ mistreatment at work. The bill would hold employers liable for up to $25,000 in emotional distress even if the victim was not demoted, fired or otherwise suffered a “negative employment decision” as part of the bullying.

Besides Washington, other states that have introduced anti-workplace bullying legislation are New Jersey, Vermont, New York, Oregon, Illinois, Wisconsin, Utah, Nevada, Montana, Connecticut, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Massachusetts and California.

Are the Feds Next?

U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) said on Wednesday, Oct. 6 that he would introduce federal legislation requiring colleges and universities to adopt policies or codes of conduct that prohibit bullying and harassment in the wake of the suicide of a Rutgers University student, freshman Tyler Clementi, whose gay sexual encounter in his dorm room was streamed online by his roommate, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei. However, at this point, no legislation has been introduced that would offer recourse against employers.

What Employers Should Do

While workplace bullying is not yet “illegal,” it is easy to see how it may affect the morale of a workplace. In today’s economy, employers should be doing everything they can to promote a productive environment in the workplace. By developing and enforcing strict policies and training, companies can better protect themselves from potential liability if they are ever faced with an accusation of workplace bullying. Employers should clearly define what types of behavior are unacceptable and cross the line into bullying. When it comes to workplace behavior, it’s not always clear when a boss is simply aggressive or has become abusive. After all, any boss can have a bad day and become frustrated with an employee. The severity and consistency of behavior are identifying characteristics of a bully. If a supervisor makes a habit of screaming, insulting or intentionally putting down employees, that can indicate that bullying is taking place.

Employees who feel bullied should have a reporting process where they can register complaints; this is particularly important when an employee’s immediate supervisor is the one doing the bullying. Employers should also outline specific steps to take when an employee has been accused of bullying and apply them consistently.

As they did on the playground, bullies in the workplace are often trying to exert their control, and they often target one or two specific people. Unlike the schoolyard bully, though, a bully boss will frequently publicly question the competence of the victim. Supervisors and managers should be trained to recognize when a boss’s legitimate criticism crosses the line into bullying. Beyond having a policy, it is imperative that employers create a company culture that is free of any type of harassment and bullying. That will create a more productive workforce, and ultimately help stave off liability and litigation from unhappy employees.